Picture the scene if you will.
Norwich City are in freefall. After an unexpected good start-sunny Saturday afternoons of football that smiled on England’s sporting greensward, all bright eyed exuberance and passion, that joyous sense of adventure that you see with any newborn has engaged with reality, met it full on – and shot to a sudden, stumbling halt. The Canaries are in freefall.
An unexpected Division Two Championship win in 1972 had fast tracked Norwich into the realms of England’s footballing elite for the very first time, the denouement of what had been a remarkable story, even by Canary standards. Because it had all been so very different a decade and a half earlier.
Many of those who had stood and watched as Duncan Forbes hoisted the Division Two Championship trophy aloft at City Hall that May would have undoubtedly remembered the trauma that had surrounded the club at the end of the 1956/57 season which had been, and remains, the worse in the Canaries history.
For not only had Norwich finished bottom of the Division Three South with just 31 points from their 46 league games – with Ipswich Town, no less, finishing it as Champions. But they had also done so with a run of form that was so spectacularly bad, fans were left wondering quite where, footballing wise, there was for the club to go – and, indeed, if there would even be a club to support the following August.
For finishing bottom of that Division didn’t mean, inglorious as that was, relegation to the fourth tier. But a lot, lot worse. City would, by virtue of ending the season in the absolute basement of professional English football, have to apply for re-election-which, fortunately for them, was a stage managed charade that nearly always saw the existing league clubs look after their own – for fear it might be them on another occasion. Because whichever way you look at it, had it been purely down to footballing reasons, Norwich City would rightly and deservedly been thrown out of the Football League in 1957. They were an appalling football side who didn’t deserve their place in the full time ranks.
From September 1956 to February 1957, their record in the league was played 25, won zero, drawn nine, lost sixteen. They’d conceded 67 goals during that run, eye watering defeats that included a 5-1 defeat at Millwall and a 7-1 humiliation at Torquay whilst Walsall, league fall guys for many of those preceding years, had dumped on the Canaries to the tune of 6-3. A week later, Reading came to Carrow Road and were 4-0 up at half time, going onto win the game 5-2. So let’s not beat about the bush, and yes, you – and I – have seen some motley Canary performances in our time. But we were, totally, utterly, unequivocally and definitively hopeless that campaign. Worse. Season. Ever.
Which is why the turnaround in the clubs fortunes, initiated by Geoffrey Watling and Arthur South in the boardroom was all the more remarkable – because, here’s another familiar theme that was being played out at the time: one of impending financial doom at Carrow Road. Gate receipts were down by around £10,000, whilst the clubs liabilities were double that. In addition to all of that, the club needed a subsidy of around £300 a week by the New Year that same season just to have a chance of completing their fixtures. Financial woes that meant that the club didn’t really need to worry too much about the fear of having to apply for re-election to the league-because actually getting to the stage of doing so would have been an achievement in itself.
So yes, whilst things might have been bad here going into the 2009/10 season when there was a very real fear of administration hanging over the club, we might, at least, have hung around to get through it, points deduction and all. Because back in January 1957 all that stopped the club from effectively ceasing to exist was a swift and sympathetic loan from the precursors to Archant, the Norfolk News Company.
All of which makes the achievement of South and Watling in turning the club around all the more remarkable. From a hand-to-mouth existence and near footballing and financial oblivion to relative prosperity and a place in Division One in just fifteen years. Mission Impossible? Almost. The trick now was to stay put and not ruin all the good work by plummeting all the way back down the leagues as Northampton had done. They’d celebrated their first ever season at the top in the 1965/66 season, but, by the dawn of the 1969/70 campaign they were back in Division Four.
This wasn’t going to be the Norwich way. Not if Ron Saunders had anything to do with it. Watling had entrusted the seventh Manager of his tenure with a larger and more generous playing budget than any previous one had enjoyed as well as making him one of the best paid Managers in Division Two. Hearsay? Hardly. Watling had said so himself when Saunders, publicly and with much press coverage, signed his four year contract at the club AGM that year. When you consider that some of Saunders peers in Division Two that season were men of the character and managerial calibre of Frank O’Farrell at Leicester City, later to take the helm at Manchester United; Les Allen – who’d won the double with Tottenham – and Tommy Docherty at QPR, Saunders was not only in esteemed company but lording it above most of them. But he knew that he had to earn the money. And that meant promotion, end of. Else it would have been the end of Ron.
No pressure then.
Yet Saunders did exactly what was asked of him. League placings of 11th and 10th in his first two seasons at the club told him everything he needed to know about Norwich City and its players. Who was in – Forbes, Keelan, Foggo and Stringer. And who was out – Bryceland, Conlon, Crickmore and Lucas – amongst others. He also knew exactly who he wanted as regards who was to join him at Norwich.
Graham Paddon had been one of them. Signed from Coventry City early into Saunders reign, the flamboyant and exquisitely talented midfielder hadn’t even wanted to join Norwich. Saunders had identified him as someone who could bring a touch of culture to a Canary midfield that was, with the best will in the world, ‘honest’. But Paddon wasn’t interested in joining or, indeed, dropping down a division in doing so. That could have been that. Saunders only wanted players who wanted to play for him, to subscribe to his master plan. Normally, he would have walked away. Yet he wanted Paddon so much that he persisted, that persistence impressing Paddon so much that he changed his mind and signed. As did, two seasons later, the immortal Jimmy Bone, he who added a touch of steel to a Norwich side that was, at time, a little too ‘nice’ for its Managers liking. That mix of silk and steel, the epitome of which was Paddon and Bone’s presence not only contributed to Norwich winning the Second Division title in 1972 but helped them hit the ground running at the beginning of their inaugural top flight season, the Canaries defying both convention and the critics by winning seven and drawing four of their first fifteen league fixtures to, by mid-November 1972, sit 6th in the Division One table.
But then that freefall that we opened with came about. A run of 19 games without a win and a soft midfield underbelly exposed by clubs with wily Managers and meaner central midfielders who had learnt that if you nullified Paddon then you pretty much did the same thing to Norwich. Paddon needed a minder, someone to step in and put his best foot forward in defence of his silkily skilled team mate, presence who would not only give him the time and space to play, but also, crucially, give other teams something, correction, someone to worry about in the Canary ranks. And Saunders knew exactly who he wanted to fulfil that role.
So picture another scene. A windswept, deserted and barren area of moorland. The land gently rises and falls, the grey skies and howling wind punctuated by the occasional echo of a ravens harsh call as the mist scurries over the peaks of the moor, finding havens to sit in, heavily, giving that sense of dank, dark no-hope. Yet, on the prow of one of those misty slopes stands a man, a warrior. His hair is blowing in the wind, his battle worn face a focus of concentration as thunder ominously rumbles in the distance. Oblivious, he observes the killing fields that confront him, of battles to come. In one hand, gently swaying by his side are his weapons of choice, a pair of football boots.
That man is Trevor Hockey.
Not surprisingly, Sheffield United, Hockey’s club at the time did not want to part with their midfield enforcer. They too had an artist gracing their midfield, Tony Currie, a man who was able to play as he would want to because of the menacing presence of Hockey alongside him. But maybe there was a chance? The Blades had a new Manager, Ken Furphy who, like all new bosses, wanted to form a team in his own image – uncompromising, hard to beat, a touch of blood, sweat and tears about the starting eleven. And, if he had not been at the club during both of their encounters with Norwich that season, there were plenty who were, one of whom was Currie. Plus a few others, notably defenders who had good cause to remember their bruising encounters with the team that played in yellow and green but contained one player who would have looked better in a red shirt as it was clearly the colour of the blood he was always prepared to spill for the cause. So Furphy took Saunders call and agreed to his initial enquiry. Yes, he said. You can have Hockey. But listen. I want Jimmy Bone in part exchange.
And that was that. Furphy had never expected, not for one moment, that Saunders would have agreed to relinquish his hold on the tenacious Scot who had scored many of his goals through the gentle art of worrying both the ball and opposing defences half to death. Yet he agreed to the deal. Yes, the loss of Bone was a critical blow to a Norwich side that needed goals and wins to ensure that they didn’t repeat part one of the Northampton path to oblivion straight away. But they also needed someone to rake the midfield area, picking off passes and opponents as he did so. Besides, in David Cross, Saunders felt he had sufficient attacking strength to get those goals. The equation worked. Hockey’s presence would let Paddon, his passing ability blessed by telepathy play and create the chances that would be fed upon by the determined Cross, a man who was not averse to being in the thick of the action himself if necessary. Job done. Q.E.D.
Hockey duly arrived for training session with his new club in the days leading up to a vital league game with Newcastle United at Carrow Road. He would have presented quite a formidable sight as he arrived at Trowse on his first morning. He stood a shade under 5’ 6” yet had the look and swagger of a much bigger man, his long hair and unkempt beard giving him the look of a pirate, one who gave no quarter – and expected none either. The thought of him and Duncan Forbes being introduced for the first time, craggy men, born of mountain and moor and as uncompromising as they come is a tantalising one. With the two of them plus the rapacious Cross in attack, Saunders didn’t so much have a strong spine running through his team as a stick of dynamite.
Thus, with the new member of cast in place, the plot unfolded.
Hockey made his debut for Norwich in that game against Newcastle, donning the number six shirt at the expense of the popular but occasionally inconsistent Max Briggs, Saunders selecting a side and formation that would have not been too dissimilar to the 4-2-3-1 preferred by Chris Hughton today. Keelan in goal, and a back four of Payne, Stringer, Govier and Butler. With Hockey and Doug Livermore providing the barrier between them and an advanced midfield trio of Blair, Paddon and another new signing, Colin Suggett, Cross ploughing a muddy furrow as the lone striker.
Did it work? Well, to an extent. Hockey and Suggett provided the new blood, the enthusiasm and the hard work, however, the overall Norwich performance was tainted by the minds of players who had a League Cup Final to think about the following weekend-for which Briggs retained his place. It was also unfortunate for Saunders that he had been without Forbes, for it was the fault of his inexperienced replacement, Govier, that let Malcolm McDonald sprint free and fire the only goal of the game. Norwich had now gone twelve games without a win, a run that, by the time Chelsea came to Carrow Road on April 14th had stretched to nineteen. And yet, barely perceptively, the tide that was pushing the Canaries towards the bottom of the table was beginning to turn. And Hockey’s presence was very much part of that change.
His presence in the Norwich midfield in the league game against Coventry had unsettled the Sky Blue midfield so much that an uncharacteristic error from the normally reliable Willie Carr had led to Norwich opening the scoring in a 1-1 draw. Ten days later, City still started at a gallop at home to Leicester, Hockey stood at the base of the Carrow Road trenches, revolver in hand and threatening to shoot anyone who didn’t advance and take the game to their opponents. It nearly worked. Paddon scored from the penalty spot and Paul Cheesley nearly added a second as Norwich looked for that elusive win. It nearly came, 1-1 again. But another point. Then Everton at Goodison and, marshalled by the superb Cross, City went 2-0 up, Hockey virtually running himself into the ground in the process and needing to be substituted, not that he would have come off that easily in the first place. He was missed, the game ended 2-2 and a precious win had escaped once again. It was, as with the games against Coventry and Leicester, becoming a case of so near yet so far.
City nearly got it at Old Trafford, Hockey no doubt thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to imperiously stride the Mancunian turf, effectively shackling the likes of Kidd, Charlton and Law as he did so – and so effectively that Kidd had to be taken off, battered and exhausted after as hard an afternoons work as he would have had that season. Sadly, whilst Hockey minded the stars, it was left to one of the supporting cast, Mick Martin, to score United’s goal and City headed home pointless again.
But the win finally came. And, when it did, it was against Chelsea, the team that Hockey would have dismissed, pre-match, as ‘fancy dans’, going onto treat them in the same dismissive manner. Its perhaps fair to say that, multi-talented as they were, that Chelsea side of Osgood and co didn’t enjoy their afternoon in Norwich, Hockey as belligerent as ever in midfield, causing chaos and creating space, enabling Norwich to put a quick passing game. They were rewarded. Mellor and Suggett combined to set up Cross who made no mistake. He didn’t in the next game either, a rugged and bad tempered game at West Brom that City won 1-0, the two points gained there pushing them, after weeks of doubt, into 20th place and safety with a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace in the penultimate game of the season confirming it, a game that saw Forbes and Hockey rampant, the footballing brothers in arms embracing the sort of atmosphere that a crowd of nearly 37,000 at Carrow Road could generate and ending it embraced together, twin architects of a fight no-one expected City to win.
And then he was gone.
Norwich’s last game of the season, a 2-0 defeat at Stoke had been played in something of a carnival atmosphere. The Canaries were safe, the clear and present danger of relegation had gone. The two teams proceeded to enjoy themselves, pressure and tension dissipated, a game that had all the hallmarks of a pre-season friendly played under clear blue skies. Which was no good to Trevor Hockey. He wanted a challenge, a fight, a battle for footballing survival – and the greater the odds against him and his team, the more he wanted it.
He spent a season at Aston Villa – just missing a reunion with Saunders in the process before returning to his first club and footballing love Bradford City before spending some time playing in the US. He eventually returned to the UK and, competitor that he was, remained involved in the game as much as he could. And it was whilst he was competing that he passed away, claimed by a heart attack as he took part in a five-a-side tournament in 1987. He was just 43 years old.
Trevor Hockey was many things as a footballer. Passionate, committed, energetic and physical, in both mind and body. You couldn’t miss him. Larger than life and a man who met life full on, charging into it headlong, determined to enjoy it and meet whatever it had in store for him-and the tougher it could be, the better he liked it. He was big, bold, brash and red blooded. And for thirteen games, a lucky thirteen as far as we are concerned, he was ours and he brought those qualities to a Norwich side that was in need of them.
A brief stay maybe. But a very memorable one.